Sermons That Work

We’ve All Heard Little Kids…, Epiphany 2 (B) – 2006

January 15, 2006


We’ve all heard little kids holler at each other, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” For a mother, that phrase can be horrifying because it usually means the kids are doing something like hanging upside down on a tree branch they had to climb pretty high to reach in the first place or daring each other to eat something totally disgusting to human beings. However, if the kid who throws down the gauntlet of “you ain’t seen nothing yet” is successful in doing something extraordinary — whether it’s safe or not — well, that kid can gain a lot of respect.

But of course, that’s kid stuff. Then again, that’s almost what Jesus was saying to Nathanael in today’s Gospel passage. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. . . . Truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Nathanael has just been surprised that Jesus recognized him at all, but then Jesus says, in a manner of speaking, “You think that’s amazing? You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

For us, this image of angel traffic between heaven and earth might at first seem pleasant, perhaps a little sweet. But it probably at once meant something deeper to Nathanael. He’d know well the Old Testament story of Jacob’s dream, where Jacob saw a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. Nathanael might also have noticed the difference in the image Jesus used. Jesus said the angels were going up and down not on a ladder, but on the Son of Man — a subtle, but very important, difference. In both instances, the image of angelic traffic points to the connection between heaven and earth, the connection between God and God’s creatures. But in the image Jesus used, that connection between God and us resides in the person of Jesus. Jacob’s dream becomes very personal for us all.

This is good news — this connection — because Jesus’ challenge to Nathanael comes in the midst of Jesus’ gathering his disciples, and Nathanael is welcome to join the group. Today we might say it was his call to ministry. Nathanael, “an Israelite without guile,” has evidently been a faithful Jew, one who probably studied the Torah with seriousness. But Jesus is saying, “There’s more.” Nathanael can go even deeper into an understanding of what Torah calls him to; he can learn even more about God. Jesus’ mission is to show God’s people who God is. As we sing in the hymn “Songs of thankfulness and praise,” Jesus is “God in man made manifest.”

This is very good news — this connection between heaven and earth, this connection between God and God’s people. It’s not a new connection. It didn’t begin with the coming of Jesus. Our Old Testament passage for today is also a call-to-ministry story. It’s so easy to love this story of the boy Samuel. We love to picture little Samuel waking his teacher Eli because he heard someone calling him. “Go back to bed,” Eli keeps saying, until he finally figures out that the Lord is calling Samuel. After Eli tells Samuel what to say the next time he heard the voice, we might imagine that Eli was thinking, in a manner of speaking, “Well, kid, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” And indeed, Samuel was given a difficult job for a young boy — the job of speaking God’s truth to Eli.

From the beginning, God has offered this connection between heaven and earth to God’s people. The ladder has always been there. The means to connect with God by living as godly people has always been there. It’s we who have failed to see it or even ignored it. In her wonderful book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes, “Both the people of the Torah and the people of the resurrection were escaping from God’s awesome invitation to be something new in the world.” This connection to God means we must constantly be open to “new-ness” — to being re-newed, to seeing anew every day the needs of God’s people around us, to being open to the new directions our spiritual lives may go if we dare to become that ladder.

Can we even go there? Could we ever presume to be so connected to God that we could take that very creative image of ladders and angels and say our example of godly living might become a ladder for others? I hope so, because that is, I think, what God offered Jacob in his dream and what Jesus offered Nathanael face to face. This makes sense if we remember that Jesus constantly reminded his followers, and so us, that what he was doing, they and us would have to continue.

So, if we do dare, it will be an adventure. On the facade of the great abbey church in Bath, England, are two immense ladders, carved in stone, stretching from the top of the front doors to the roof. A number of angels are carved on the ladders, but it’s quite an interesting crowd of angels. Most are intent on climbing upward, but several are looking over their shoulders as if to encourage those behind. There are a couple, however, on each ladder that seem to have gotten turned completely around and look as if they’re hanging on by their toes upside down.

They’re wonderfully funny angels, but they’re also strangely comforting. Daring to be that ladder ourselves doesn’t mean we’ll always be perfect. Nathanael probably wasn’t always perfect in his ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples. Samuel probably wasn’t always perfect in his ministry as one of God’s prophets. We won’t always be perfect in our own vocations. Some days we may feel like we’re not much of a ladder, but those are the days we must remember that Jesus’ mission was to show us who God is and how much God loves us. In another great hymn, “When Jesus went to Jordan’s stream,” we sing, “the Triune God is thus made known in Christ as love unending.” In love, God offers us reconciliation. In love, God offers us a chance to right ourselves and continue in our work of building up the kingdom. In other words, our lives are to become increasingly an epiphany of God.

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